Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lamar Story-Arc Update

Lamar's argument that it could trade six vinyl billboards for the right to put one, glowing, 19-foot-by-58-foot sign on the Grant Street Transportation Center, Downtown, didn't fly with Zoning Board member Alice Mitinger. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Yeah it didn't. The beginning of the story is HERE.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday: It's a Small World After All

Null Space is genuinely concerned about the state of our region's locks and dams.

Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents has been covering Mayor Ravenstahl's formation of a new LGBT Advisory Council, and is generating a lot of interest on the general topic of how-a-supporter-becomes-a-board-member.

is a City
questions whether the moratorium on new liquor licenses can be effective in changing the atmosphere of the South Side, or whether it's just for show, considering more drastic steps that are out there. She also wonders why Luke Ravenstahl doesn't seem to run an inclusive decision-making process.

The Pittsburgh Hoagie praises Bill Peduto for his initiative to upgrade city traffic lights to enviro-friendly LEDs, and points out an overlooked story about missing gift cards at Allderdice High School. He's also the first to notice mayoral candidate Carmen Robinson's new web space.

The MacYapper runs a good post that marks his Official Disappointment in Barack Obama -- and it also runs our favorite new pictures of him. Also his (John's) political comedy roundtable is tonight, details in link.

The passing of the Burgher is marked by the Busman and by the Slag Heap, both of which are blogging up storms in their own right. Keep an eye also on the Post Gazette.

Pop City Media has a profile on Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership CEO Mike Edwards. A selection:

Since January, 2006, the total completed or actively planned Downtown investment is an astounding $4.5 billion.

But with that number come the challenges. Downtowns can no longer merely locus, or focus. They have to be thrilling – and clean! In The Downtown Gospel According to Mike Edwards, there are two reasons. First, Disney. “Because of Disney,” he says, “downtowns have to be places that are exceptionally clean, safe, and interesting.”

Second, TV. Hit shows, such as Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City, all present downtowns as “exciting, youthful, positive,” he says. “They’re places to have a great time, even fall in love. Both of these factors helped change the perception that downtowns were dark, dirty, and dangerous,” Edwards says, “places to be avoided in favor of the mall. Now, of course, we have to exceed people’s expectations. We have to make downtowns as wonderful an experience as they can be. That’s what we’re striving to do.”

Wow, this takes us way back. Which reminds us, don't forget Comet Anniversary Week comes at you starting Monday Dec. 22nd. We'll be just oozing with content.

The Names Change, the Band Stays the Same

Michael T. Livingstone, 35, of Mt. Washington is accused of defrauding the city of $17,775 by conspiring with five others to rig the auctions at the city tow pound, police said. (Trib, Boren & Kerlik)

Well, that's unfortunate.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Tom Flaherty, a former longtime city controller, said he hired Livingstone, in part because he knows Livingstone's father, Donald "Red" Livingstone, a Democratic committeeman in the city's 19th Ward, which covers Mt. Washington.

The Democratic committee is what is frequently referred to as "the machine" (though the Comet has an even broader working definition of Pittsburgh's political machine that we will discuss in the coming year).

Committee members vote to "endorse" candidates for public office. An endorsement from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) or "the machine" brings with it a considerable amount of party money and human capital well in advance of what the rest of us call "Election Day".

A common objection launched at the machine is that its members can pressure elected officials to grant special favors in exchange for continued political support -- up to and including preferred treatment in city hiring, for themselves and for friends and relatives.

If true, this would lead to even more machine influence in the functioning of government, as well as to greater insularity and lessened of diversity in the workforce -- and eventually to some employees feeling specially entitled, protected or emboldened while on the job.

But that's a matter of debate. Some on the Democratic committee are known to loudly eschew such political hustling, and its influence may be greatly exaggerated as folklore. More to the point, there's no way of telling whether the machine was especially responsible for the hiring and harboring of this scoundrel at the Controller's office, who wound up bilking taxpayers out of tens of thousands of dollars in a car-auction scheme.

Or is there?

"I was really shocked when I heard about this," Flaherty said. "But it's just an allegation. I knew his father, and I knew Mike (Livingstone). Red was always involved in politics, and he was active in Irish fraternal groups."

It sounds like then-Controller Flaherty is willing to vouch for the initial decision to hire him. Where have we heard that name Flaherty again?

But if Democrats continue to have a party chairman in the mold of Mr. Flaherty, their luck can't be counted on to hold. Mr. Flaherty, 54, is an old pol beyond his years, one of the Dino-Dems we have railed against for years. Among that crowd, he is Hackosaurus Rex.

He harkens back to the era of the smoked-filled room, the political favor and government as employment agency for friends and relatives. As party chairman, true to form, he fought row-office consolidation, which has always threatened to bring the gravy train to a stop. (P-G Edit Board, 2005)

Party Chairman is as high as it gets in the committee. Not to kick a man while he's down (and we are glad it sounds like he's okay), but there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the machine and its ways have suffered a black eye with this arrest.

Whoa. "Hackosaurus Rex." The P-G editorial board was like a blog back then!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Burgher Packs It In

He/she/they did so in the contemporary manner...

Federal Money: We've Totally Got This

The Burgher is doing just fine.

My take:

Yesterday, for instance, the Port of Pittsburgh Commission outlined $580 million in lock and dam projects it could promptly start with some federal funds. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Excellent. Do this. In fact, don't do anything to get in its way. These strike me as the kind of jobs that need to be stimulated right now.

Michael Kenney, executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, said his list alone is $680 million. He said it's "very important" that the authority take advantage of the stimulus program, because it has to fix aging pipes and comply with a consent decree requiring reductions in the flow of sewage into the rivers. "It'll be infrastructure needs I won't have to pass on to ratepayers." (ibid.)

This one might be a slightly harder sell to the Obama administration -- there could be a perception that municipal government ought to clean up its own mess or something. But it's legitimately a massive, worker-intensive infrastructure project that is absolutely "very important".

And let's not forget:

As part of that new culture, Ravenstahl said an "energy audit" of the City-County Building is being done to evaluate how much it is wasting in utilities and find ways to make it more environmentally friendly. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Lost amid the comedy of miscommunication and ambitious fantasy in the sustainability piece was the reality that Mayor Ravenstahl put himself squarely out there in his intentions to upgrade 414 Grant Street.

Now, it is true for example that this energy audit needs to be conducted and completed, and then its results incorporated into a renovation plan, this plan itself likely needing to be put out for bid. Yet what I see now is a raft of three proposals that are perfectly up Obama's ally. They are (or can soon be made) shovel-ready or crowbar-ready, and can serve as trust-building exercises with Obama's government before we go tilting at wind turbines and other projects down the road.

We can bemoan the lack of fully prepared major projects if we desire -- and we can loudly bemoan some of the reasons for this, though our years of financial receivership probably have something to do with it.

Or we can put our best foot forward, pursue those needed river and sewer improvements that constitute no-brainers, and position ourselves adroitly for the second round of Obama money -- the round for projects that can only have been envisioned after the reality of Obama's presidency took over. The "Great Works" phase, if you will.

MORE: P-G, Trib

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quick Thought of the Day


Council shall have the following additional powers:

a. to employ or retain its own staff and consultants including a city clerk and an attorney qualified to practice law before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, who may act as legal advisor to council, and may represent council as a body in legal proceedings. Council's attorney shall not represent the City as a municipal corporation in any legal proceeding;

I don't see the word "solicitor". Good thing we've settled upon a "legal parliamentarian" or whatever. Also, there may be a distinction between "represent council as a body in legal proceedings" and "litigate".

The 2009 Budget: Final Action*

The meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance, led by John Sukernek, age 5 1/2.

"... one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

That seemed to be his favorite part.


Proclamations were presented by Doug Shields to Charlie McCollester and the gang at The Point of Pittsburgh project; by Tonya Payne to salvage artist -slash- community champion Jorge' Meyers; by Bill Peduto to Rabbi Daniel Schiff; and submitted by Ricky Burgess to Jack and Jill of America in Pittsburgh; and by Darlene Harris in formal remembrance of Catherine Baker Knoll. All five passed by unanimous consent.

The first one came replete with a thirty-foot banner and an original musical performance by a solo guitarist.


"Happy birthday to Pittsburgh
Twohundredand fifty years old..."

Verses were assigned to Pittsburgh's many military, labor and civil rights struggles that are told through The Point of Pittsburgh project, as well as verses for the Steelers various different eras of dominance, and then verses and more verses. It was all beginning to smell like an elaborate filibuster of the mayor's budget, until our anonymous folk hero signaled that he was in on the joke.

At length, he brought his epic ballad to a rousing conclusion and exhorted the Council, "Don't forget the workin' man."


During public comments, we opted to do some laundry.

Upon returning, a speaker (Kenneth Miller?) was describing to us all the progress being made in meetings with public officials, including Darlene Harris among others, as to how our city's sports teams can leverage their licensing agreements to combat the violation of child labor abuses and reverse the proliferation of sweat shops around the world.


Down to business.

First came a "technical amendment" changing the name of one line-item from General Services to Finance, which also involved a shift from $37 million to $45 million. This was approved by unanimous consent.

Second came a decision by Jim Motznik to repeal his amendment again seeking to increase the pay of the city's Store Manager, Department of Public Works, by roughly 20%. Motznik said he was acknowledging pressure under certain laws of state oversight, but has received assurances from the administration and others that pay equity between persons of similar job descriptions will be addressed in what has become known as the Race and Gender Pay Equity Study.

Third there was a raft several amendments -- one I believe for uploading Council meetings on the web ($56,000 transferred from fuel costs), another for legal fees incurred by the Lamar Four at the hands of a private attorney ($4,800 out of the Law Department's pie-share), and then maybe something else to make the Lamar Four thing not stand out quite so much. * UPDATE: I think it was Burgess's proposition to bump forward completion of the new five-year plan from June to March.

Patrick Dowd voted against the city paying the legal fees. Aside from that single objection, it was ayes all around.

THEN they all got to discussing the swift allocation of $45 million from the general fund to "something in the nature of an irrevocable fund for the purposes of paying down debt" in lieu of the pensions shortfall.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Pittsburgh Comet: Our Two-Year Anniversary

Comet Anniversary Week begins Monday, Dec. 22nd.

Tuesday: Treats

Okay, this is a little weird, but we'll go with it. Our fellow has a certain zen-like, tranquil intensity about him as well. (P-G, L.A. Johnson)

"He's a great, great coach and a great fit for Pittsburgh and we are going to the Super Bowl this year," she said. "We had one for the thumb and now we're going to be two-fisted."



As you know, the Ethics thing progresses. It may progress further today.


Whoa. Foreclosure. PNC Bank. The homeless. Allegheny County. Kevin Evanto. The URA. The Water Authority. Too much. (Trib, Wereschagin and Spatter)


So we have Consol Energy as a civic partner and meme. It is incumbent upon us green weenies to evaluate eventually how "progressive" an energy company (coal company?) Consol Energy is or is not, we suppose.

From a press release:

The second project is a first-of-a-kind, micro-turbine generator configured to use unprocessed coal mine methane gas directly from an underground source to generate electricity.

Don't worry about the first project.

"Our goal is to be a major stakeholder in such projects to ensure the environmentally sound and efficient use of coal, methane gas and alternative fuels," said Harvey.

Let's meet Harvey. The Google was surprisingly little help; he keeps a low profile. Maybe some Comet reader will volunteer to purchase one.


And you thought PittGirl's goodbye-page was spooky. (Story)


What has me wondering...... I have not seen any stories to suggest there is, but are there really no Pittsburgh connections here at all? That would be good, but it seems a bit improbable.


The URA, as should we all, has its eyes on that Obama money federal monies that are available or can likely be administered to us quickly.

Board members are expected to consider an agreement today that would provide up to $1.1 million in federal funds to install granite curbs, terrazzo sidewalks and new street lights and trees along Fifth Avenue between Wood Street and Liberty Avenue in the same block as the developments. (P-G, Mark Belko)

You want to spend some of that Obama money downtown? How about this: something sensible to be laid down upon the Mellon Arena acreage that would abate the disruptive traffic flow situation at Bigelow Boulevard and Sixth Ave., and reestablish the street grid.

That's a big job and surely far from shovel-ready, but we can start to plan it and engineer it now in advance of what surely will be a second wave of federal investment. These things always happen in twos. The space and the opportunity it would unleash for seedling development (and for several anchors) would be enormous -- this is a redevelopment plan that should always be ready to go.

Granite curbs? Terrazzo sidewalks? Why don't we just paint our faces, grow our fingernails to enormous lengths, and pierce everything?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Defeasement: Shake the Tree, Gather the Nuts

Chris Briem, one of Pittsburgh's foremost economists, throws a glass of cold water on the campfire that is becoming the Great Defeasement Debacle.


The current yield curve for government T Bills and bonds goes from 0-2.5% for maturities out to 10 years. For maturities out to 5 years the maxium yield is under 1.6%. At the low end, you can't really defease any debt these days. (Null Space)

So it appears that our Libertad, Egatitad, Defeasitad manifesto may not have been exactly the thing. We were conflating several issues, some of which being Pittsburgh's predilection to incur debt to pay off other debt, to over-speculate in the market, and to conduct plain old accounting gimmicks like these.

This may have been the most harmless example of its breed: a little accounting white lie. You would think that if Patrick Dowd chose to make a move here -- Shame on the mayor! Shame on the ICA! -- he would have done so supported by a ton of research and a certain degree of necessity. He may yet secure us our "clarity" as to how exactly these funds will be spent -- but he shook the hive pretty hard with little at stake, if in fact we can't profitably defease our bonds now even if we tried.

What was revealed were several artifices concerning our budget -- one being that our five-year outlook is "balanced" or "alright" in any real way. The best we can say is that the ICA approved it, and the ICA is after all only as much good as the State Legislature. (Do what you will with that.)


As Pittsburgh firefighters union chief Joe King left a news conference yesterday, he turned to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and said, "If you hide money, I'm going to find it." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Well, that doesn't smell like Team Spirit!

Almost all of the unions representing city workers will get new contracts next year, and the two biggest -- the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Fraternal Order of Police -- can take the city to binding arbitration.

Even if Mayor Ravenstahl and the ICA are "hiding money" -- even if they are setting aside $35 million or so (??) and renaming it and writing it out of the budget (this is how you get into trouble, people!) -- do consider that we're all making sacrifices.

"We're not here to bankrupt the city with wages and benefits," [Fraternal Order of Police President Dan] O'Hara said. "However, there is a real concern about what this police force is going to look like if wages don't keep pace with other communities."

Unfortunately, other communities aren't in as bad a shape as we, are they? Think about what the Port Authority just went through. "We need to do more with less" is unfortunately a gross reality across the nation, much less Southwestern Pennsylvania, much less Pittsburgh.

I'm not yet saying we need to make cuts. I'm just saying we skip "binding arbitration" on the stuff to which we can come to an amicable accord.


Now, back to the actual economist. He was intrigued by the very notion of going to great lengths to set up this "lockbox" or "non-lockbox" to pay debt when it comes due:

First off, why was the plan shifted from paying down pension funds to paying down debt? There would be no issue at all right now if the surplus in question was put into the pension fund where it could not be extracted. The city's debt level has not changed from its planned trajectory in the last year, yet the pension fund has been hard hit by the financial markets. You would think that the pension fund is far more in need of shoring up right now. (ibid.)

Pause for effect.

I can only speculate the reasons for the shift, but suspect the mayor's budget reflects some of the preferences of the ICA.

Pause for effect.

Without rambling more, I think the whole issue comes down to some key legal questions that I addressed when musing on the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings in Vallejo California. If you want more see what I said in
Why Vallejo Matters.

Bankruptcy proceedings? If a city goes through with a bankruptcy, I suppose that would relieve it of the obligation of owing money both to its pensioners and creditors.

If the city pays off its creditors on Wall Street in advance and lets the pension fund suffer, one might have difficulty winning reelection. Several advancing columns of current and former employees would not be ideal. (Nonetheless, it may be a good time to buy some AFLAC.)

Yet if the city takes care of its pensioners first and lets its creditors suffer instead, one may find one's bankruptcy judge unwilling to grant one the bankruptcy. "Try raising taxes on all those people who are getting pensions", she'll say ... and that affects everybody and everything. Meanwhile, nobody on Wall Street is doing business with us anymore. A slow and painful death.

So can the former be what is being perpetrated upon us ... real quiet-like?

I've been calling for Bankruptcy for years now. This forum visits that subject periodically and the majority of contributors say "NO" it'll be the end of Pittsburgh.But now as the nation and the world slips into the grips of a serious recession or maybe even a depression, cities like Pittsburgh, already fiscally distressed, are on the edge of the abyss. File now; be first.